Town welcomes post-graduation lull

Summer offers quiet time, chance to regroup, reflect in Blacksburg.


Virginia Tech students at makeshift memorial on campus.
Credit: Michael Kiernan

Many memorials line one end of the Drill Field on the Virginia Tech campus.
Credit: Heather Moyer

Clergy are welcoming a post-graduation lull that has settled over Blacksburg and Virginia Tech in the past week.

More than one month after a campus gunman killed 32 students and faculty before shooting himself, the time to stay quiet and reflect is needed, they say.

"Graduation created another fervor and another shift," said the Rev. Alexander Evans, pastor of Blacksburg Presbyterian Church. "The pace of town changes a lot after graduation. I think there's a great deal of fatigue around here. We kind of need a little break and breather from the intensity which was sustained through graduation. I hope the lull here will give us a chance to build back up."

Some students skipped the recent graduation ceremony, saying the event was too painful to experience.

"That makes me very sad," said the Rev. Joanna Stallings, campus and Christian education minister at Luther Memorial Lutheran Church. "I can't possibly imagine doing all that hard work and not enjoying that day."

Stallings said, however, that she understands the sentiment of the students.

Evans and Stallings said they and their churches continue to offer support to those in need through grief workshops or personal meetings. Stallings was regularly e-mailing her students who have returned home for the summer, a move she said was designed to keep tabs on their well-being and to be a presence if they needed her.

"We anticipate the return to school in the fall being difficult," she said.

Fall classes resume Aug. 20.

Evans said the opportunity in the past week to return to some regular pastoral duties has been helpful for his well-being.

"The lull gives us a little opportunity to regroup," he said. "I'm tending to church meetings and budgets and other pastoral needs."

His sermons since the April 16 shootings, however, have all touched on the tragedy.

"Many of our conversations are still about this and I suspect that will be the case for a long time," Evans said. "And so we're trying to find a way forward even as we are deeply affected. We're moving forward, but we're not moving past it."

Evans remains in contact with other Blacksburg pastors as a way to check in with each other and offer support. Having heard of the high percentage of pastors that left the ministry after the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, he said such support was crucial.

"We've spent good time together to encourage each other. We've all been similarly affected, drained and challenged beyond what we would've ever thought," he said. "We've been trying to debrief together."

The debriefing work continues with the city's police department as well, where Evans is department chaplain. He said grief and stress workshops for officers and their spouses, as well as community forums to discuss the tragedy, were being planned. Evans said the emotional and physical drain was felt by everyone in the town.

Evans and Stallings said support from their wider denominational networks, including Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR), has been important in the recovery. Evans said he stills receives e-mails and cards offering prayers from churches nationwide. One church in Pennsylvania sent him a gift card to a local restaurant.

"That just touches you deeply," he said. "Someone's saying, 'Take care of yourself, take your family out.' Wow, what a great church. I've gotten cards and notes from literally around the world. It's a real powerful sense of church. Everybody is still praying for us and expressing it in various ways.

"We've set up a table in our narthex that's literally overwhelmed with letters and e-mails," he added. "People stop and read them every Sunday. It's a great reminder of the church and its love and care for God's people when they're hurting."

Stallings said LDR has been "really terrific about being a listening post and in offering respite care for pastors in the area. They're making resources available to us, too."

She said LDR was helping write a letter to be sent to synods in areas where Virginia Tech students live in an effort to prepare their hometown pastors for what those students are coping with.

Evans and Stallings said they have held grief and coping workshops for their congregations and are handing out resources to parents of the youth and the younger children.

The Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia will utilize a grant from Episcopal Relief and Development for ongoing counseling needs of parishioners at Blacksburg's Christ Episcopal Church as well as the wider community. Diocese Bishop Neff Powell said support from another Episcopal connection in New York also assisted it in the shooting's aftermath.

"Our bishop for the armed forces and institutions arranged for us to talk to a psychologist who debriefs military chaplains returning from Iraq and Afghanistan," Powell said. "She was very helpful and did a lot of coaching with me."

Powell still offers words of encouragement to the local Blacksburg congregation and the community.

"I keep telling people it's prayer, patience and time, over and over," he said. "It's going to be hard."

He agreed that support from churches and others worldwide has bolstered people, noting that words of encouragement and prayer have come to the diocese from as far away as the United Kingdom and from an Episcopal priest in the Sudan.

"It's so powerful and it's a time when you realize how big the church is," Powell said.

Evans said he hoped something positive will prevail.

"I hope people will continue to come together," he said. "I hope that the unity and compassion will be the lasting result of this crisis."

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Related Links:

Blacksburg Presbyterian Church

Luther Memorial Lutheran Church

Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia


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